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Facebook's Alternate Universe

For years, Facebook has tried to build an alternative to the internet. In the process, it has disconnected from reality. Facebook Home is an alien visitor from an alternate universe.

Posted on April 4, 2013, at 4:53 p.m. ET

Who asked for the Facebook Phone? According to a recent survey, virtually nobody. In any case, today, we didn't quite get one. Facebook Home is not a Facebook phone in the mold of the Apple Phone or the Google Phone. It's a new homescreen — a skin — for Android phones.

But it's a "phone" for people who don't just like Facebook, but like it more than anything else — it inserts itself into all the things people truly enjoy about their smartphones. It presents all of a smartphone's core functions, from photography to texting to app launching, in the literal context of Facebook. It reflects a belief that there are people out there who wish all the internet existed inside Facebook, that they never had to leave — and that Facebook is better than the web it's built on.

There are certainly people who feel this way. There are vastly more, it seems fair to say, who do not. But there is one group of people for whom Facebook is the internet: the people who came up with Facebook Home, up to and including Mark Zuckerberg.

There's a mind-set shared by early, zealous start-up founders and actual masters of the tech universe: a total, genuine, and unchallengeable belief that the thing you're making is the best, that it's the only thing worth using. This is valuable when you're starting a company and swimming against the current. It's a far easier pose to assume when you are the current. It's also a complacent one.

The most profound recent disconnect between tech leaders was around Google+. To Google cofounder Larry Page, Google+ is an oasis. "When I post publicly I get a ton of high quality comments, which makes me happy and encourages me to keep posting," he wrote in a letter to investors last year. "I strongly encourage all of you to follow me on Google+ — I love having this new way to communicate and share with all of you!"

His Google+ experience was the best possible Google+ experience, lofted by interesting, active friends and an adulatory following. For his users, however, Google+ was largely a ghost town. To a regular person who has tried and left Plus, Page sounded profoundly out of touch.

Let's be clear about this: Facebook is huge, people use it, and they use it a lot. There simply isn't room between perception and reality to accomodate a Page-ian disconnect. But there are shades of Page in what Zuckerberg said today and in what he's said before. Today he spoke of an "ultimate social phone" and referred the the launcher as "the soul" of your handset. (Zuckerberg has a habit of speaking about the return to appreciating "people" as if he's had some kind of roundabout revelation. There are few vantage points from which a basic interest in humans can feel revelatory; a seat on Facebook's steering committee appears to be one of them.)

People who work at Facebook have the best possible experience on Facebook. They are among the few truly living out the vision set forth by Mark Zuckerberg during his (now oddly tinged) IPO road show. "I think we're going to reach this point where... almost every app that you use is going to be integrated with Facebook in some way," he said. "We make decisions at Facebook not optimizing for what's going to happen in the next year, but to set us up to really be in this world where every product experience you have is social, and that's all powered by Facebook."

I imagine that describes life within Facebook quite well: a group of peers who work together, see each other outside of work, and use every Facebook product to its fullest extent. It's a place where Facebook Messenger could be more popular than texting, where Facebook Camera actually caught on, where people actually "Check In" using Facebook instead of FourSquare. Where the Poke app is more popular than Snapchat, and where people give each other Facebook Gifts at Christmas. It's a place where Facebook Home makes perfect sense and might actually be a fun and useful thing to have on your phone.

But even if you set aside worries that Facebook's audience is growing bored or that its much ballyhooed graph is beginning to rot, life online outside of Facebook is far more varied. Even people who love Facebook don't love it that much. So real-life avid Facebookers use Facebook as an app on their phones, or as a distraction at work, or as a chat system, or as a photo gallery service, or as an Instagram alternative, or as a way to check in. But they rarely use it as all of the above. Mark Zuckerberg admits as much, though he interprets the facts in the opposite way. "Facebook accounts for 23 percent of the time people spend on smartphones," he told Wired in an interview published today. "Something like this could encourage a lot of people to get Android phones, because I think people really care about Facebook." Facebook is a superlative example, he notes, pointing out that the next most popular apps, Instagram and Google Maps, each command 3% of users' time. But 23% isn't nearly a majority, which is precisely what Facebook Home enforces: a phone experience designed, run, consumed, and ultimately overwhelmed by Facebook.

Phones from Apple and Google gather disparate services into a platform and use that variety as a selling point. The Facebook Phone is a phone for a different universe — Facebook's universe — in which Facebook isn't merely a jack-of-all-trades, but a master. And it's a universe few outside of Facebook can conceive of.

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